Monday, April 02, 2007

Working With Latinas

When I started in the clean room laundry, I had no idea that I would shortly be the only person in there who spoke fluent English. My co-workers had names like Francesca, Aide, Epifania, Mariela and, poignantly, America.

One lady, Marta, was more or less bilingual. We traded lessons. She would translate for me and I would answer any and all questions she had about English words and grammar. She taught me a lot of Spanish, but I have to admit that I never really got out of the present tense.

We used to go to the Spanish dances at La Estrella, out near Florence, and I was not allowed to speak English there at all. I learned to order beer, run off drunks, and politely accept an offer to dance or decline a ride home.

Work started at 6:00 AM. We had two 12 1/2 minute breaks, and half an hour for lunch. We were supposed to get off at 3:00 PM, but, if there was extra work, we had to stay. We never knew if we would get holidays off or not, until it came right down to the wire. If we could get two days work done in one, we were given the holiday off. In order to be paid for a holiday, we had to be present for all scheduled shifts for seven days before and seven days after the holiday. The work was gruelling in the extreme. And the job paid 40 cents an hour over minimum wage.

Many of these women went home at 3, or whenever we were allowed to, and stepped right in to single parenting chores, as their husbands went off to their second shift jobs. Once their children were in school, one parent or the other usually worked two jobs. When there were children old enough and responsible enough to watch the little ones, each parent worked two jobs. Sometimes an extra part-time job on the weekends.

One lady had cancer. She was going through chemo and planning and organizing her daughter's Quinceniera at the same time. Another ran a beauty salon out of her home. She was licensed in Mexico, but had to learn English so she could upgrade her license to work here. She could perform miracles with perm solution and scissors. Several had sisters with pre-schoolers who stayed home and kept the little ones for those whose husbands had to work during the day. My son, at three, spoke fluent Spanish, because his babysitter taught him.

Their kids and mine went to the same schools, and they were there for every PTA program, award ceremony and field day. They bought books for their children at the book fairs, and the kids taught their parents to speak English.

For every story you have about druggies, gang members, prostitutes and murderers, I can find you ten about people who never make the news, people who work their butts off all their lives so that their children have a chance at the same opportunities you and I have.

So, if you want to gripe about immigrants, don't come to me.

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